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How Should China Respond?

Sep 03, 2021

The rapid takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan, by the Taliban on Aug. 15 and the chaotic evacuations at the Kabul airport thereafter have been in the international news spotlight, marking the collapse of the Afghan government that the United States had supported for 20 years. Where will Afghanistan go in the future? Will a Taliban regime gain international recognition? And how should China respond to the changes in Afghanistan and what role will it play?

First, stability and national peace in Afghanistan remain the top priorities. Although the Taliban seized power swiftly, anti-Taliban forces have not dissipated. Under the leadership of former Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a prominent anti-Taliban figure and a national hero, forces are gathered in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. They oppose Taliban rule and recently recaptured three regions, including Baghlan Province in the northeast.

Although the resistance force, currently numbering in the tens of thousands, is far from enough to pose a fundamental challenge to the Taliban, it does provide a check on the Taliban’s desire to achieve quick stability and comprehensive peace in the country. It seems that the Taliban’s strategy is still wise, and they are not mobilizing troops to encircle and suppress the resistance. Instead, they are sending messages about making peace through the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation and Russia, hoping to resolve the disputes without bloodshed.

As far as the resistance movement is concerned, there are four possibilities: It will be destroyed by the Taliban; it will continue to grow; it will remain in a guerrilla-style resistance for a long time; or it will lay down its arms and pledge allegiance to the Taliban. At present, the latter two possibilities seem most likely.

Second, the Taliban will soon announce its philosophy of governance and will work to gain international recognition. As an Islamic fundamentalist movement originating in the Kandahar region, the Taliban's reputation during its previous rule of Afghanistan and subsequent confrontation with the Afghan government was not good. For example, they were notorious for the destruction of the world heritage Babiyan Buddha; severe restrictions on women’s education, employment and even going out; and for connections with some extremist terrorist groups.

In fact, when news of their occupation of Kabul broke out, the Taliban’s poor credibility and public image caused people to flock frantically to the airport, hoping to flee the country rather than face a future of Taliban rule. Yet it is true that after 20 years of resistance to the U.S. occupation, the Taliban are not what they used to be. They are now better able to use political wisdom and diplomacy, rather than just violence, to achieve their goals. After the occupation of Kabul, the Taliban have issued many policy pronouncements and made promises, such as amnesty for former Afghan government officials, soldiers who surrender and police officers, hoping that everyone will return to work. They have promised to protect women’s right to education and right to work.

In terms of state institutions and philosophy of governance, the Taliban have declared that they want to establish an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, abandoning the republican system of the past. In addition, while promising an inclusive government acceptable to all parties, the Taliban recently stated that they have no plans for an interim or transitional government but will establish an inclusive government without transition. Taliban political leaders have also arrived in Kabul, and a head of state and regime structure are expected to emerge soon.

In fact, the Taliban’s adoption of a moderate, steady philosophy of governance and the formation of an inclusive government are not only necessary to establish a stable regime but are also important prerequisites for international recognition. The international community has generally adopted a wait-and-see attitude on whether to recognize a Taliban regime; other nations continue listening to the Taliban’s words and watch their deeds. After all, the Taliban need to prove their transformation through actions, so the road to international recognition is bound to be long.

Finally, China, an important neighbor of Afghanistan, has kept its composure over changes and played an important role in helping the country move toward stability. In late July, for example, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi clearly made two points when he met with a senior Taliban delegation visiting China. He recognized that the Taliban are a pivotal military and political force in Afghanistan and are expected to play an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation and reconstruction in the country. In addition, he pointed out that the Taliban should be completely separated from — and resolutely and effectively fight — terrorist organizations, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. The Taliban promised they would not allow anyone to use Afghan territory to attack China or other countries, and welcomed China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of the country.

In addition, to prevent spillover from the Afghan conflict, China has been strengthening international cooperation in counterterrorism on its western border for several years. For instance, it has set up a joint counterterrorism center in Tajikistan, built posts along the border with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and formed joint counterterrorism units with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Sino-Russian Western Joint-2021 military exercise, the first if its kind, was completed in mid-August at the Qingtongxia tactical training ground in China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region, where the terrain is similar to that of Central Asia.

Afghanistan is an important link in the development of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, and the stability and unity of Afghanistan will do more than facilitate the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan and connect the corridor with West Asia through Central Asia. More important, it will enable the war-stricken Afghan people to reverse their displacement and embark on the road of national reconstruction and development.

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